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Footpath to the Moulins-de-la-Foux

Hike and time travel in the Cirque-de-Navacelles UNESCO heritage site.

The Moulins-de-la-Foux, the “mills at the source” are located at the fifth strongest spring in France. A spring that gushes out of the rock with pressure to this day, and for a thousand years was the site of several cascading mills built one below the other. As it was a thousand years ago, the mill, now restored, can only be approached on a footpath. Almost every century there was a flood that destroyed large parts of the mill, but it was always worthwhile to rebuild exactly on this spot. During the hike, which takes about four hours, there is time to reflect on the power of water and the importance of the miller and the mill.

Der Cirque de Navacelles ist ein 300 Meter tiefer natürlicher Talkessel, der vom Wasser der Vis durchschnitten wird / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Cirque de Navacelles is a 400-meter-deep natural basin cut by the waters of the Vis River / © Photo: Georg Berg

The Vis River runs for 13 kilometers through an underground cave system before flowing back above ground as a bountiful spring, and in the geologically long course of time has cut a deep gorge in the limestone of the Massif Central of southern France.

From the Baume Auriol viewpoint, an oyster-shaped pyramid can be seen below, at the settlement of Navacelles. Here, a shortcut has formed between two courses of the river, where a waterfall now invites you to bathe in the water, which is rarely warmer than 12 degrees, even in summer.

Der Cirque de Navacelles ist ein 300 Meter tiefer natürlicher Talkessel, der vom Wasser der Vis durchschnitten wird / © Foto: Georg Berg
Die Vis bildet den Wasserfall von Navacelles. Im Sommer bietet das nur 12 Grad kalte Wasser eine angenehme Erfrischung / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Vis forms the waterfall of Navacelles. In summer, the water, which is only 12 degrees cold, offers pleasant refreshment / © Photo: Georg Berg

Hike into the past

On a hike through the Navacelles gorge, one casually learns how rural life was a thousand years ago. The goal of the two-hour hike is the Moulins de la Foux, to which even today there is no passable road. From the hamlet of Navacelles, one still starts on an asphalted departmental road.

Nur noch wenige Einwohner leben in Navacelles, Lodève, Frankreich. Der Ort ist ein touristischer Ausgangspunkt für Wanderungen im UNESCO-Welterbe Cirque-de-Navacelles / © Foto: Georg Berg
Only a few inhabitants still live in Navacelles. The village is a tourist starting point for hikes in the UNESCO World Heritage Cirque-de-Navacelles / © Photo: Georg Berg
Steinbogenbrücke über die Vis bei Navacelles, Lodève, Frankreich. Die sogenannte Maultierbrücke über den Fuss Vis wurde im Jahr 1595 so gebaut, dass sie auch bei Hochwasser stabil bleibt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Stone arch bridge over the Vis River near Navacelles, Lodève, France. The so-called mule bridge over the foot Vis was built in 1595 to remain stable even during floods / © Photo: Georg Berg

The entrance is located in the fork of two departmental roads and is easy to find, although one does not yet want to believe that the hike into solitude begins here.

An einer Straßenkehre bei Navacelles beginnt der Wanderweg zu den Moulins-de-la-Foux / © Foto: Georg Berg
Between two switchbacks near Navacelles, the trail to the Moulins-de-la-Foux begins / © Photo: Georg Berg
Eine Hinweistafel bittet am Startpunkt der Wanderung um Verständnis, dass es an den authentisch restaurierten Moulins de la Foux weder Mülleimer noch Toiletten gibt / © Foto: Georg Berg
A sign at the starting point of the hike asks for understanding that there are neither trash cans nor toilets at the authentically restored Moulins de la Foux / © Photo: Georg Berg

Hiking is the miller’s delight

Soon the path becomes narrow and if not many hikers stray here, it occasionally grows completely closed. The Vis meanders windingly through the increasingly dark valley. There are warning signs that the water can rise surprisingly fast. No wonder one thinks wandering, because after all the today so peaceful river has created this enormous canyon with its power.

Der Fluss Vis bei Navacelles hat ein tiefes Tal geformt. Sein Wasserstand kann nach starkem Niederschlag sehr schnell ansteigen / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Vis River at Navacelles has formed a deep valley. Its water level can rise very quickly after heavy rainfall / © Photo: Georg Berg

It is also on the path that one best understands the importance that mills must have had in the past. After all, in their heyday they were the only industrial enterprises in which machines ran. The miller’s profession also had a special social significance. For every farmer, going to the mill was part of everyday life. Because of the harder physical work at that time, more bread was eaten than today and the flour for it could only be found in the nearest mill. Walking is therefore not the miller’s pleasure, because he lived where there was water power that could drive the mill wheels. Grain and flour were transported on mules or by the farmers on their own backs.

Der Weg von den Getreidefeldern bis zur Mühle war oft beschwerlich / © Foto: Georg Berg
The way from the grain fields to the mill was often arduous / © Photo: Georg Berg

The social role of a mill

For almost 900 years, the miller held an important social position. His work was as mysterious as it was simple. Using the only machine that existed in the countryside, he tamed the forces of nature to turn grain into flour. Socially, he also acts as a mediator. His place of work is remote and yet people have to meet at his place. The Moulins-de-la-Foux are particularly privileged in this respect because the fifth strongest spring in France is located here, which hardly has to fear a failure.

Les Moulins de la Foux bei Navacelles, Frankreich. Der Ursprung dieser Brücken datiert laut einer Stiftungsurkunde auf das Jahr 1097  / © Foto: Georg Berg
Les Moulins de la Foux near Navacelles, France. According to a deed of foundation, the origin of these mills dates back to 1097 / © Photo: Georg Berg

The history of the Moulins-de-la-Foux

The first mill was built almost a thousand years ago on this site, where the water flows out of the mountain at high pressure. The mill building was constructed so that its weight could withstand the water pressure. Several mills are constructed in cascade with each other, allowing the water power to be distributed among several grinders, each of which produces 30 kilograms of flour per hour.

Les Moulins de la Foux bei Navacelles, Frankreich. Der Ursprung dieser Mühlen datiert laut einer Stiftungsurkunde auf das Jahr 1097  / © Foto: Georg Berg
Les Moulins de la Foux near Navacelles, France. It often had to be rebuilt after a flood / © Photo: Georg Berg

Almost in every century there was a flood that destroyed large parts of the mill, but again and again it was worthwhile to rebuild exactly on this spot. Only after the flood in 1907 the mill was not put back into operation. It owes its present condition to a restoration that began in 1997 and was completed in 2000.

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